In the last podcast episode on Plantinga and properly basic beliefs, I briefly discussed the “Great Pumpkin Objection.” As it’s a subject worthy of a blog post of its own, and given that I know some people prefer things in writing, I thought I’d add a blog entry focused on that objection.
Alvin Plantinga has hammered out and defended the notion that if God (the Christian God that he believes in) really exists, then a Christian’s belief in God can be construed as properly basic. A properly basic belief is one that is rationally held and yet not derived from other beliefs that one holds (this is another way of saying that it is not justified by what is often called evidence). We hold many such beliefs, for example, the belief that the universe was not created just five minutes ago, any beliefs based on memory, belief that other minds exist, the belief that we are experiencing a certain colour, and so on. Set aside, for now, the fact that a lot of Christians think that they can produce decent evidence for the existence of God. Plantinga argued – successfully in my view – that even if that’s true, theism can be construed as properly basic and hence suitably justified even without such evidence. God created us in such a way that when we function properly we believe in him. The normal epistemic response to creation is to believe things like “God created this,” or more fundamentally, “God is real.” For more details, check out the podcast episode.
One bandwagon that anti-theists have jumped on is to claim that if theists can claim that their belief in God is basic, then just anybody at all can do this in regard to their belief in just anything. Here’s one popular version of that objection: In the comic strip Peanuts, the character Linus believes that there exists a Great Pumpkin who rises from the pumpkin patch every Halloween and rewards good children with presents. If Christians get to think that belief in God can be properly basic, then why couldn’t a person (like Linus) think that belief in the Great Pumpkin is properly basic, and so claim the right to believe it even though he cannot produce evidence for the belief’s truth?
In spite of the widespread acclaim that this objection gets, I think that it’s trivially easy to show what’s wrong with the objection. Here’s the response to the Great Pumpkin objection: Properly basic beliefs are not groundless. They are brought about in the appropriate way by being in the right circumstances (and functioning correctly). So when you are in the circumstances of being appeared to “treely,” you form a belief like “I see a tree.” When you are having past memories of eating eggs, you form the belief that you ate eggs. True, if the circumstances you’re in are such that the Great Pumpkin really exists and has created us in such a way that we function properly by believing in him, then when we form the belief that the great Pumpkin exists, that belief is warranted and it can indeed be said to be properly basic. But how is this a problem for theism being construed as properly basic if true?
The Great Pumpkin Objection is an attempt to show that Plantinga’s understanding of theism as a properly basic belief can be reduced to absurdity, but the objection does no such thing. Plantinga’s explanation of properly basic beliefs was never intended to show that theism is true. All it shows is that if the God that he believes in does exist, then there’s a defensible account of how belief in this God can be properly basic. But likewise, if it were true that the great pumpkin did exist and the way that he interacts with creation likewise provides an account of how pumpkinism can be properly basic, fine. What this tells us – and this was really Plantinga’s point, is that you can’t dismiss the rationality of belief in God (or the great Pumpkin, if he is said to do these things), without first dismissing the truth of the belief, by declaring that in fact God does not do these things, or has not made the world this way, so that really belief in him cannot be properly basic after all.
I remember during a postgraduate theology seminar at the University of Otago this objection came up after a talk I had given. I described Plantinga’s account, and a very confident atheist in the room shot back “Oh yeah? Well I believe in the cosmic giraffe. He exists and communicated his existence to me via direct experience, so I am just as warranted in holding this belief and calling it basic as you are.” This was obviously just a re-labelled version of the Great Pumpkin Objection, and it fails for the very same reason. Sure, if there is a cosmic Giraffe, and if this guy was telling the truth about how the said giraffe communicated his existence to him, then his belief could be warranted and basic. But as was pretty obvious to everyone in the room, he was just making it up. It wasn’t true at all!
Atheist Keith Parsons likewise badly misunderstands the point of the account of theism as properly basic when he attempts to address the way that the Reformed epistemologist can easily dispatch the Great Pumpkin objection. He notes that if theism of this sort is true then it is properly basic (he calls it “warrant basic”). Now, it logically follow from this that if theism of this sort is not basic, then it’s not true (although some other kind of theism might be, but let’s ignore that for now). Here’s how he comments on this in the Cambridge Companion to Atheism: “the atheist can stand Plantinga’s argument on its head and argue that the fact that theistic belief is not warrant basic shows that there probably is no God!” (p. 111). Well, here’s the thing. Yes it’s true that showing that this sort of theism is not basic is to show that it’s not true, but in order to show that it’s not basic, as Plantinga spelled out, you have to show that it’s not true, because if it’s true then it will be basic. In other words, theism is only non-basic if it’s false. In practical terms, this means that showing that theism is not basic is going to require you to show that the factors that would cause the belief to be basic just aren’t there. God’s not real, or God didn’t create us in such a way that we function properly by believing in him, for example. Unless you can successfully argue for such propositions, then you cannot establish that belief in God isn’t basic.
Now, Parsons evidently disagrees. He says:
[W]hen it comes to arguments questioning the rationality of theism, Marx and Freud are now the least of theists’ worries. A number of recent works offer challenging naturalistic accounts of religious belief in terms of neuroscience, anthropology, and evolutionary theory (see, e.g., Guthrie 1993; Alper 2001; Boyer 2001; Wilson 2002; Broom 2003). If the arguments of these authors are cogent – and Plantinga gives no reason why they cannot be … then there is excellent reason to doubt that theistic belief is warrant basic, for such belief will have natural, nonrational causes – and not be caused by the proper functioning of a cognitive faculty designed to produce true beliefs.
The Cambridge Companion to Atheism, ed. Michael Martin (Cambridge: Cambridge University press, 2007), 111.
But look at the way this line of reasoning works: Plantinga has offered an account which, if true, would make theism properly basic. Parsons says that some other people have offered an account of theism which, if true, would make theism not properly basic. Therefore we should doubt that theism is properly basic, and hence we should doubt that it’s true.
But who on earth would accept an argument like this? The fact that there exist ways of describing theism that do not describe it as basic is simply irrelevant. If theism is true, then Plantinga’s account of theism, making it properly basic, is much more likely to be true than the naturalistic accounts referred to by Parsons. What’s more, even if plenty of people do accept theism solely because of the causes that Parsons alludes to, at very best this shows that not everyone who accepts theism holds it as a properly basic belief. But there’s definitely nothing here to show that Plantinga’s account of theism being properly basic is false.